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Understanding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder through Research


By Sophia Attwells, Graduate Student at CAMH, Art by Janice Liu

CAMH and University of Toronto researchers are leading the way in discovering biological markers that may characterize obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental illness that affects at least 2.5% of Canadians. OCD is a form of anxiety that manifests in repetitive thoughts and subsequent rituals. It is a serious and lifelong mental illness with 75% of people with OCD developing the illness before the age of 24.  

For a person with OCD, even something as simple as using the public washroom may cause a profound sense of anxiety. The anxiety can be intense and disrupt the ability to perform and enjoy everyday activities. Sadly, there are very few effective treatments for OCD. To address this issue, researchers must develop new approaches that intentionally reverse pathologies of OCD. Our research team led by Dr. Jeffrey Meyer (MD, PhD) at CAMH is currently conducting a study using cutting-edge brain imaging techniques to further our understanding about the brain of people with OCD.

In our current study, we intend to brain scan people with OCD using two sophisticated brain scans called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET). MRI is a technique that uses a magnetic field to create images of the shape and structure of the brain. The PET scan uses a special type of camera and a tracer (radioactive chemical) to look at specific chemicals and proteins in the brain. Using these two scans, we are able to create an image of the brain and visualize the location of specific chemicals and proteins.

One protein in the brain that we are particularly interested in is called Translocator Protein (TSPO). This protein has been linked with inflammation, the body’s response to infection or trauma. Sometimes this response can be excessive or unhelpful which could be harmful instead of helpful. We think inflammation may be a contributing factor in the development and persistence of OCD. Using our brain scans, we will be able to quantify TSPO levels in different brain regions and examine whether brain inflammation is present in people with OCD.

Our research group recently made a big breakthrough in depression research. We discovered levels of brain inflammation are on average 30 percent higher in some people who experience clinical depression, a secondary diagnosis often seen in people who suffer from OCD. Our findings are significant because they are the first to show inflammation present in the brains of clinically depressed patients. There is a possibility that treating inflammation may eliminate depression in these people. Likewise, there is strong evidence in literature that inflammation may contribute to OCD. One theory suggests people with OCD may have been exposed to strep infection earlier in their life, but the inflammation persists long after the infection has subsided. The persistent inflammation may lead to the symptoms of OCD.

This is the first study of brain inflammation in OCD using cutting-edge brain imaging technology. Dr. Meyer’s approach of investigating a specific marker in OCD is a novel approach for developing treatments for this illness. The expected outcomes of this research would have several important implications. Should brain inflammation occur in OCD, strategies to prevent or treat brain inflammation, such as anti-inflammatory medications, could be developed. Exercise and certain foods that reduce inflammation may also help. With our results, we may be able to develop a blood test that can detect brain inflammation. This would help diagnose OCD in some individuals and allow for personalized treatment. Early detection and treatment will result in the best outcome for this serious mental illness.

We need your participation and hope to help further understanding of OCD. To learn more on how to participate in this study, please visit “Find a CAMH Study” (use keyword obsessive compulsive disorder).

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is very hopeful research. Too long we have leaned on social studies (not science) to explain serious mental illnesses. Those of us who love and sometimes have lost to suicide a beloved family member are most anxious to see this kind of scientific research into brains to ameliorate, even eliminate all serious mental illnesses.

    I hope there will be many volunteers who want to help in this scientific research. I wish you success in this kind of scientific research.

    October 7, 2015
  2. JoAnne Hunter #

    I hope something is found so….my son is now 5 years old and I know he’s had OCD for the last 2.5years.
    It’s young, but it evident he has it.
    I wish I could help him. 😔

    October 7, 2015

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